tv Deutsche Welle Journal LINKTV February 6, 2013 2:00pm-2:30pm PST
annenberg media ♪ gam made possible by the financial support of... and the following individuals and foundations... corporate funding for art of the western world is by movado, makers of the movado museum watch, the watch dial design in the permanent collections of museums throughout the world. captioning made possible by the annenberg/cpb project
of half-dreamt, half-remembered ancient greece and rome. the poet shelley wrote at the beginning of the 19th century, "we are all greeks. "our laws, our literature, our religion, our arts "all have their roots in greece. "but for greece, we might still have been savages and idolaters." the human form and the human mind attained to a perfection in greece which has impressed its image on those faultless productions whose very fragments are the despair of modern art and which can never cease to delight mankind until the extinction of the race. in the 18th and 19th centuries, europeans surrounded themselves with the images of greece and rome. they created for themselves personal museums which displayed their wealth, taste, and learning and idealized the virtues of reason, liberty, and justice. in this way, they elevated-- and even masked--
their mundane relationships with land ownership and manufacture, trade and empire, and they exported these ideals and the visual language which expressed them all over the world-- to the americas, the indies, and beyond. it is appropriate, then, that these are the first pictures we see in a series on the tradition of western art. we could have started in the caves of lascaux or the temples of luxor. but if there is a source to which western art and thought constantly refers, it's in ancient greece and rome, which are forever fantasized and idealized, but are with us wherever we look.
more than 200 years ago, when the founding fathers of the united states were building their new capital here in washington, they searched for a visual style which would embody their democratic ideals, and they found it in greece and rome in a style which for them, as still for us, embodies harmony, order, and freedom. the west has built its temples to liberty and justice and to money and power in the greek and roman style. you see it in trafalgar square in london and in leningrad in the soviet union. at the root of the western tradition-- in architecture, painting, and sculpture-- is the classical legacy. it's so ingrained in our way of seeing things that we don't notice when we use it in tv, commercials, magazines, coins, even on our credit card. many of our uses for it
no doubt would astonish people from the ancient world. but if an ancient greek could be here now, he would recognize this around us and feel that, in some sense, the west is heir to his civilization. the power of this tradition and its hold over our imagination make it difficult for us to see the greeks and romans as they really were. the athenians of the fifth century b.c., the builders of the temple at sounion, are often portrayed as superheroes, the creators of democracy and a perfect society. we must be careful not to idealize them. like all societies, theirs was imperfect. it was based on slavery, women had no rights, they were imperialists, and in their darkest moments, as in the bitter peloponnesian war with sparta,
the athenians fell prey to irrationality, mass hysteria, strange religious cults, pornography, urban violence, and murderous and unjust acts of foreign policy against smaller states-- things we're all too familiar with in the modern west. but greek artists and poets understood these things about human nature, and they made their art about those contradictions, about the tragedies and failures as well as the achievements. the sculptures of the altar of zeus from pergamum portray those contradictions in the dramatic manner of the second century b.c., but like so much greek art, the originals have been dismembered and fragmented, scattered around the museums of the world or buried deep and forgotten. some works are wonderfully preserved on the site of their origin, but most have been broken and bleached by time.
it takes imagination and study to piece together these fragments and try to see them in the context of the society in which they were produced. who made these images and objects? for whom? and why? what was in the artist's mind? the patron's? how were they seen by the surrounding society? we'll be helped in answering these questions by art historians like john boardman of the ashmolean museum, oxford. we're used to looking at greek art this way, in museums, in this case, in a cast gallery, university of cambridge, where they've assembled these figures-- plaster casts of the more important greek and roman statues present in many museums in the world. the art historian and archaeologist try to work out the original settings of these figures-- what was in the artist's mind when he made them
and the impact on the society for which they were made. there are several examples here which show the difficulty we have in making this adjustment. this figure, probably made in crete in the seventh century b.c, isn't unlike figures which might have been made in other cultures in antiquity, syria or egypt. only an expert would know the difference. it's not distinctively and obviously greek. there's another problem about it, too, which we have to adjust for. there were traces of color on it, and a duplicate cast has been colored up with what they think to be its original colors. it's a striking difference to the way we're used to seeing such figures. we move on about 100 years to another figure-- one important characteristic of greek art is the extremely rapid development of style--
we find something which is considerably more realistic, still very formal, rather stiff, but quite unmistakably greek. this figure, too, can tell us a little more about her original appearance because she was found with traces of color on her dress and face, and again, a duplicate cast has been restored and painted up to show what she looked like in antiquity. the colors would probably have been muted somewhat by the bright athenian sun. we've got to try to make these adjustments to allow for these figures in their original setting, their original appearance, try to understand their original function. if we can't, we can't understand what greek art's about.
the art we recognize as greek was produced in the millennium between 2,000 and 3,000 years ago. the temple at sounion was built in the great classical period of athenian triumph, but centuries before, greek society was already recognizably different from other near-east cultures. persia and egypt were mighty empires, ruled by dynasties that gave themselves the status of gods. the greeks lived in city-states under the rule of petty kings. the scale of these greek communities, never far from the sea, made them vulnerable to attack from larger forces, but also threw them back on their resources of fitness, strength, intelligence, calculation, and above all, individual heroism. the idea of the individual standing proudly independent is one of the most powerful and resilient ideas in human history. the figure of the kouros
shows this idea taking the center of the stage. andrew stewart teaches at the university of california at berkeley. it's often said that statues like this are emblematic of early greek culture. i think they are for four reasons. the sculptor has taken the statue's clothes off. convinced that man is the measure of all things, he allows him to stand free and proud, allows your eyes to roam unobstructed across his body. he's autonomous. the sculptor has stripped away the back pillar and the screen between the legs of the egyptian statues that were his predecessors and has allowed him to walk forward in three-dimensional space. he's beautiful. he's also youthful. the sculptor has chosen that period between 18 and 21 that the greeks believed was the prime of one's life, the acme of one's existence on earth.
as a result, the statue could serve one of two main functions. it could be offered to the gods, particularly to apollo, the epitome of this youthful ideal, or it could stand above the grave of a man of any age, reminding his descendants of when he was in his prime, standing youthful, proud, autonomous, beholden to no one, the measure of all things. the male figure-- naked, proud, idealized-- did have a female equivalent in the kore. she, too, is beautiful, but she is serene rather than heroic. she's clothed and static, not boldly striding forward like the male. the turn of the sixth century to the fifth century b.c.
saw one of the most dramatic transitions in history-- political and social. it coincided with an equally dramatic transition in art. the krition boy of the early fifth century b.c. is the kouros come to life. he has relaxed his body and come closer to the appearance of nature. we can only speculate about the relationship between the development of democracy in the greek city-states and the development of an unprecedented realism in art. but both, in their separate ways, reveal a new excitement in the idea that individual human beings can take charge of their own destiny, even though they do so under the capricious gaze of manlike gods. the zeus recovered from the wreck of artemisium shows the new freedom and confidence of sculptors modeling clay rather than carving stone and translating the clay model by casting it in bronze.
the zeus describes his power by reaching his hand far out over his realm, brandishing his thunderbolts, gazing unwaveringly towards the horizon. he stands like an icon with divine power. it tells us that zeus is king of the universe, that his power is infinite, that he is a supremely poised being by comparison with the turmoil of man's life on earth. the fact that his physique is no different from that of an athlete or a hero of the same time is simply a continuation of the standard greek notion that the gods were made in human form, that you project your known notions of male beauty onto the heavens.
the triumph of democracy-- a more restricted matter than the mass democracies of today, but nevertheless, a dramatic change from tyranny-- coincided with the triumph of the athens of pericles. pericles was not a tyrant, but a leader chosen by the athenian citizens as their representative. he led athens through a period of reconstruction after the wars with the persians, wars which left athens in ruins, but finally rid of its great enemy and at the head of a league of greek city-states. the mid-fifth century b.c. was the period of athens' greatest influence, not only on the greek world at that time, but on subsequent history. the most impressive monument to that influence
is the acropolis, the citadel which still dominates athens. pericles used the resources or, some contemporaries argued, abused them to rebuild the acropolis and crown it with the parthenon. the bold simplicity of the building, with its strictly harmonized repetition of the most basic geometric shapes, has had an unparalleled influence on the world's architecture. the creators of the parthenon, including the sculptor phidias and the architect ictinus, adapted the traditional temple form, but refined it. they created an impression of subtlety and lightness, despite the building's scale and the massiveness of its marble surface. the sculptural decorations employed the skills of hundreds of craftsmen, setting a new standard in art. it took less than a decade to erect this monument to athenian pride. it was built on the ruins of a temple destroyed by the persians,
partly glorifying the greeks' victory over their greatest enemy. to their subsequent cost, the athenians took more than their share of the benefits of persian defeat. they may have been democratic, but to fellow greeks like the corinthians and spartans, they appeared arrogant and domineering. they felt that protection of their founding goddess, athena, had given them a special status, celebrated in a procession to honor the goddess. today, the parthenon is admired for the harmony of its architecture and the refinement of its friezes, but to the ancient athenians, it was admired for something rather different-- what lay inside the temple. that was a statue of athena nearly 40 feet high. that's only 5 feet below the ceiling. a statue armed, covered with gold in all its dress from head to foot, the skin ivory, with monsters on its helmet and a great serpent by its side.
to us, that would seem garish, grandiose, and unrestrained, but that was the core of the building. and if you put yourself in the position of an ancient athenian, perhaps coming from the panathenaic procession in the dazzling light of an attic august and then going inside that building, we can imagine what it felt like to see that statue. as the eyes became accustomed to the gloom and saw the glittering gold, the jeweled eyes reflected in the pool below, the effect must have been overwhelming. we can only imagine the impact created by the goddess and her surroundings. our attempts to reconstruct the statue's appearance, like this one from the 19th century, can merely hint at the experience of seeing it in its dramatic context. but it reminds us how vivid, how colorful greek art must have been in classical times.
bleached by the centuries and sterilized by museum surroundings, the reliefs of the parthenon frieze appear cool and restrained, but originally, they would have been brightly colored and even more lifelike than they are now. their depiction of the panathenaic procession would have been still more convincing-- art and nature coming closer together than ever before. the frieze is generally regarded as representing the high point in the classical style. composition is still rather formal, almost mechanical, but it's enlivened by a great many realistic details of gesture and posture. figures are perhaps rather unemotional, but highly idealized. the whole thing seems to represent a balance between that greek preoccupation with composition proportion, and a growing sense of realism. the illusion of reality is created even more impressively
in the massive sculptures of the pediments, the gables at each end of the building. what seems to happen is that they were creating, so far as they could, more successful images of man by varying the representation of details. there was, as it were, a sort of natural selection of forms, and the forms that were eventually adopted naturally tended to be the more realistic ones. add to it, remember, the coloring of hair and eyes, which add to this realistic effect. as soon as they understood how the human figure worked, that it wasn't simply an assemblage of patterns and volumes, they moved rapidly to the point at which they could create a human figure in two dimensions or in three dimensions which realistically portrayed
quite subtle poses, postures, and actions. this was the major breakthrough which marked out greek art from that of all contemporary cultures. this-- at least in sculpture-- was the point at which greek art took off in a totally new direction and informed the whole western tradition. the athenian ascendancy did not survive the fifth century b.c. athenian democracy itself was always vulnerable, but athenian culture-- its philosophy, literature, drama, as much as its architecture, sculpture, and painting-- maintained a hold over the greek and the western imagination. fifth-century athens created a classical ideal against which all subsequent art could be measured. here the sculptor has refocused the youthful ideal of the kouros and the parthenon frieze and the getty bronze behind me
onto the person of one man-- alexander the great. what he's doing here is to appropriate the ideals of periclean athens and to show alexander as the logical successor of those young men who fought in the peloponnesian war for athens' greater glory and who tried to establish her empire further and wider. no individual had ever achieved so much in the history of mankind, at least as far as the greeks remembered it. no individual had incorporated within himself qualities which were so conspicuously heroic. so we have here an image that derives its authority from the past-- the human, the heroic, the divine-- but at the same time, looks very definitely towards the future. the future that alexander promised was an empire that would spread across 2 million square miles.
greek towns and greek language and culture were established deep into asia, some as far from their source as india. alexander died when he was only 33, and his monumental project could not sustain itself. but the model of the greek state he exported of a civilized city in a barbarian landscape became the model for the greek city-states for the next 300 years. one such city was pergamum, built in what's now turkey in the second century b.c. pergamene rulers were neither democratic nor especially heroic, but they borrowed the heroic forms of alexander's time and of classical athens to express their ideals and values. but in their art, like carvings on the great altar of zeus, the pergamenes depicted the struggle between the gods, between the rational and the irrational, with a violence and passion that the classical athenians never permitted themselves.
you can feel the drill ripping into that stone to create that writhing hair of the giants. you can feel the chisel cutting away to create feathers or skin or scales, muscles or drapery-- whatever. you can feel the rasp making those immense range of surface textures together with the polish, so here the sculptor is foregrounding his own technique. there's creativity going on here which is quite different from anything that we've seen in the past. the technique of the parthenon frieze is self-effacement. here the emphasis is on artistic creation. the creative force of greek art after alexander has been reproduced ever since in the direct copies of the roman period, in the rediscoveries and recreations of the renaissance, and in heroic art up to today. the great altar of pergamum
is one of the most impressive and characteristic monuments from ancient greek culture, and yet, at the time it was finished, about 170 b.c., the age of these independent greek city-states and kingdoms, like pergamum, was nearing its end as a new power pushed its order across the mediterranean-- rome. the romans conquered greece in the middle of the second century b.c. they would surpass the greeks in political power, in military might, in technological innovation, but the romans would be forever in greece's debt in the fields of philosophy, science, literature, and the arts. as the roman poet said, "captive greece made rome captive." the visual language devised by the greeks would be adopted by the romans and subsequently, by the entire western tradition. indeed, it would become the pre-eminent means
of portraying order, rationality, harmony, and power, whether in dictatorships, despotisms, or democracies. ironically, though, the lesson which the greeks understood and which their artists expressed in these works and in the parthenon sculptures-- namely that the disruptive and frightening forces of the irrational will always threaten to burst out in human history-- that lesson would have to be learned again and again.
rome began here, a cluster of little villages strung over these hills above the marshy valley of the river tiber. founded, according to legend, in the eighth century b.c., at its heyday in the second century a.d., it ruled an empire whose soldiers stood guard from the windy hills of hadrian's wall in scotland to the persian gulf, and whose merchants traveled as far afield as india and china-- the culmination and the unifying of the old cultures of the mediterranean world and western europe. from that day to this, rome would be the greatest single influence on the western cultural tradition. indeed, it could be said that rome is that tradition.
it's not merely that rome gave the west the latin language, roman law, roman ideas on state craft and on society. it was rome which passed on to the west the artistic, philosophical, and spiritual legacy of ancient greece, which rome had conquered, looted, and then learned from. it was rome which would be the agency of transmission to the west of an obscure, near-eastern religious cult which became the dynamic, motive force in western society and spiritual life-- christianity. but rome also gave the west a practical legacy, a legacy which western people see every day of their lives, from washington square to trafalgar square. and that legacy lies in the realm of architecture, civil engineering, building, town planning. these were the roman arts par excellence. and roman thinkers came to view the goal of their empire
as providing a peace in which those arts could flourish. it was caesar augustus who brought the first real peace to a rome weary of continual war and internal strife. in 13 b.c., the senate celebrated his triumphant return from spain by dedicating to him an altar of augustan peace. on the outer walls is a sculpted representation of that dedication ceremony-- a procession of priests, officials, and members of the imperial family. this is to roman art what the parthenon frieze is to greek art. a sense of order and serenity pervades the scene. at the head of the procession, between his two consuls,